Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mohegan Archaeology Field School Enters Third Week

By Ken Davison
Feather News

About 40 tribal members have taken the Mohegan archaeology field school over the past 15 years but this year may mark the end of the course.

The Tribe's archaeologist, Dr. Jeff Bendremer, is expected to leave the area shortly after the completion of the course at the beginning of August. It was primarily for this reason that I joined the class as well as my love of history. The full-time course is also why the content on the Feather News has been so light in the past weeks.

Dr. Bendremer worked on the Mohegan Reservation as a volunteer for five years, beginning in 1994, and was later hired by the tribe in 1999. Before that, Dr. Bendremer had worked with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and has participated in numerous excavations of Indian sites in Connecticut.

The course, done in partnership with Eastern Connecticut State University, has been a unique opportunity for tribal members to study archaeology with non-tribal students on the Mohegan homeland.

The first week of the course was devoted primarily to classroom instruction mostly taking place around a picnic table at Fort Shantok. Tribal archaeologist Elaine Thomas joined Jeff in instructing the students on a various topics ...

The class was joined every morning by a curious squirrel who always arrived late but stayed close to the picnic table. And there was the bluejay who who refused to leave the branch above Sister Bette Jean Coderre's head while she told us stories.

Charlie Strickland, Storyteller Sister Bette Jean Coderre, Medicine Woman Melissa Zobel, Tantaquidgeon Museum specialist Jason Lavigne and Mashantucket Pequot Archaeologist Kevin McBride also shared with the class some of their perspectives on history in the first few weeks of the course. The students so far have vistited the Tantaquideon Museum, the Mohegan Congregational Church, the Ashbow Burial Ground, Cochegan Rock, the Mohegan Sweatlodge, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and other sites.

Mashantucket Pequot archaeologist Kevin McBride explained to the class that the Western Pequot's (now known as the Mashantuckets) 1666 reservation is the earliest reservation in the United States and that the Great Cedar Swamp area at Mashantucket was inhabited as early as about 12,000 years ago.

While at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum students got to see a display that described the wild sunflower seeds found by Jeff Bendremer on a dig at Windsor, Connecticut. The seeds were kept preserved due to a grass lining and is the only evidence that Indians in Connecticut used the sunflower plant.

Students got to watch the Mark of Uncas movie. In that movie, Vine Deloria spoke of how unique the Mohegans are in that we know the founder of our Tribe: Uncas. Our split with the Pequots in the 1600's coincided with the first European explorers and colonists that arrived in our region and who documented some of the local Indian history.

Jeff compares archaeological sites to endangered species and notes that development is the most destructive human activity affecting sites.

Beginning with the second week, the class began to learn excavation skills in the field.

The field school, in conjunction with the Tribe's archaeology staff, participate in the Tribe's efforts to better understand how Mohegans and earlier inhabitants lived. The course is one of the oldest field school collaborations with an Indian tribe.

Students were shown artifacts recovered from past excavations, including pottery, pipes, wampum beads, projectile points (arrowheads) and bottles. Part of this collection has come from archaeologists who have dug on Mohegan homelands a half-century ago and earlier.

Besides learning excavation techniques, artifact processing and Mohegan Indian history, the program concentrates on exploring the relationships between archaeologists and Native Americans.

Other guest speakers lined up for the course include the Tribe's archivist Faith Damon Davison, a.k.a. Mom, Connecticut Indian Affairs coordinator Ed Sarabia, Connecticut State Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni and Narragansett Indian John Brown.